April issue 2019

By | Cover Story | Published 5 years ago

Photograph by Shahrukh Waseem Wamiq – Goonj Studios.

“He started complimenting my appearance, my ‘positive attributes.’ As he gushed over me, I started to relax a little,” says Fahad*, an aspiring Pakistani model/actor. “He then started touching me, caressing different parts of my body. One thing led to another…” Fahad trails off after describing the first of many instances of sexual exploitation he has faced within the local fashion industry.

In October 2017, The New York Times carried a report – which in hindsight, it turns out – triggered a revolution of sorts. It was an investigative piece detailing allegations of sexual assault against Hollywood producer and powerhouse Harvey Weinstein, which led to not just his undoing, but the opening of a literal Pandora’s box. Since the story broke, Weinstein – who had until then reportedly been thanked on the Oscars’ stage for his assorted achievements in the industry more than God – has become the poster-child for the Me Too movement, not just in Hollywood, but increasingly, as the topic catches fire, around the globe. In the year since the story first came out, it has led to very public allegations against some of the industry’s other major personalities: R. Kelly, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K. and Bill Cosby, among others. Some of the accused have been tried and are currently serving time. Cosby is a case in point.  

Coined by social activist Tarana Burke in 2006 – and made popular by another survivor of sexual abuse, actress Alyssa Milano – following The New York Times story, ‘Me Too’ is now a globally recognisable term associated with both women’s and men’s shared experiences of sexual harassment. Spearheaded and supported by members of the entertainment industry in Hollywood, the movement has spread its wings around the globe and acquired a life of its own. But, unlike the West where, figuratively speaking, heads – of the alleged or confirmed perpetrators – have rolled, Me Too has failed to take off as a mass movement in Pakistan. 

Rampant sexual abuse, particularly in the local entertainment and media industry, remains unchecked as scores of aspiring professionals are subjected to it by the industry’s dons, and stay silent for fear of risking their careers – which often are the only source of bread and butter for their families – and their professional reputations.

The torchbearers: The term ‘Me Too’ was coined by Tarana Burke (Right) in 2006, and made popular by Alyssa Milano (Left) a decade later.

Detailing the extent of the abuse he has faced, Fahad* says, “I was given the number of a renowned director. When I got in touch with him, he told me to come alone, specifically asking me not to bring anyone along. I sat with him for some time, and we spoke. He told me if I wanted to go into acting or modelling, I would have to change my look. He began to tell me how I should be dressing and styling myself. It was under the guise of ‘checking’ and ‘measuring’ my thighs, that he began groping me. Seeing no other way out, I submitted to his pawing without protesting.” And Fahad’s ordeal did not end there: the director then asked him to take off his clothes and model different pairs of underwear for him. Feeling helpless, he complied, adding, “The director told me he had learnt some specific Chinese massaging techniques on one of his work trips, and wanted to massage me. He took his time with this ‘massage,’ and then forcibly fellated me,” he says, almost matter-of-factly. 

Speaking in a panel discussion at the fourth Women’s Peace table, renowned actor Saba Hameed analysed the reason for the continued harassment of young men and women in the entertainment industry and why it is so normalised: “There is a very strong ‘bro’ code; the understanding that ‘I will not call you out on your behaviour, so long as you don’t say anything about mine.’ This code involves the mutual covering-up of abuse. Ergo, decades of men in positions of authority continuing to exploit the vulnerable.” 

Actor Hajra Yamin of Pinky Memsaab fame adds, “Given how power structures work, the onus of speaking up should never be on the victim, but on others who are in positions of authority and can use their voices to raise the issue without fear of a backlash.” 

Speaking up, however, is easier said than done. Even with the ascent of women to leadership positions, it is still largely men who control the industry. “Look at how many female directors we have in this country – the only two I can think of are Mehreen Jabbar and Sharmeen Obaid – and one of them is a documentary filmmaker,” says Frieha Altaf, CEO Catwalk Event Management and Productions, one of the industry’s mainstays, and the woman who spearheaded the Mein Bhi movement in Pakistan. 

The ripple effect: Following Meesha Shafi’s public allegations of Ali Zafar’s alleged sexual misconduct, other victims came forward with similar claims.

Mein Bhi, often confused with a Pakistani equivalent of the Me Too movement, covers more than sexual harassment. “It is more about ‘mein bhi aapke saath hun  (I am with you),” says Altaf, who began the movement to create awareness about the range of issues plaguing Pakistani society. The primary intent was to encourage celebrities and public figures to take up issues close to their hearts that have long needed redress, and to use their star power to build conversations around them. But even after a much-talked about launch of the Mein Bhi movement at the last LUX Style Awards, it did not engender the widespread response hoped for, despite the endless cases of ongoing and known sexual abuse, involving different age groups and irrespective of social classes, which could have been addressed under the Mein Bhi umbrella. And while Altaf has been commended for her courage in speaking up, and for her advocacy work, she has also been embroiled in controversy. She was accused by a former intern of creating a hostile work environment, and criticised for posting people’s pictures without their consent and commenting on their choice of clothes. So what could have been a campaign to really kickstart and sustain the Me Too movement, soon got relegated to the sidelines. But in the months following the launch of the Mein Bhi movement, the Pakistani public witnessed what was perhaps the country’s most out there Me Too moment – or in retrospect, perhaps the beginning of the end.  

“Today, I speak up because my conscience does not allow me to be silent anymore. If this can happen to someone like me, an established artist, then it can happen to any young woman and that concerns me gravely,” wrote Meesha Shafi in a tweet on April 19, 2018, levelling allegations of sexual harassment against her colleague, renowned Pakistani singer Ali Zafar. Shafi’s tweet marked the actual beginning of the Me Too movement in Pakistan, but the reaction that has followed, especially the support, has been mostly muted, and often downright negative. Industry members have been largely evasive about the issue, with Zafar’s group of friends standing by his side and countering her narrative, insinuating she had joined the Me Too bandwagon for fame and attention. Zafar’s Teefa in Trouble co-star Maya Ali took to social media, urging the general public to withhold judgement until all the facts were revealed. Ali added that she had known Zafar to be a ‘‘family man who loves his wife and children dearly’’ and could not support the allegations.


Dwindling conversations: Spearheaded by Frieha Altaf, the much-talked about Mein Bhi campaign fizzled out a few months after its inception.

That, in essence, is the core of the myth about those revered by society as ‘family-men.’ The accusations against him aside, Zafar is a man who is publicly affectionate towards his wife, who is by his side at award shows, whose praises he sings on social media. Why then, it is conjectured, would he ever feel the need to harass another woman? 

Meanwhile, the woman levelling the charges – her marital status notwithstanding – is being viewed as a predator of sorts herself, rather than a victim. She is seen as a woman aiming to attain personal and professional gain from the publicity her accusations have, and it is maintained by Zafar’s supporters, that she had hoped to generate, in the future. Clearly, patriarchy is alive and kicking: a man’s word carries more weight than a woman’s. 

And in the worst-case scenario, the narrative born of this patriarchy, can acquire menacing overtones against people who have the temerity to stand up and fight. This aggression can take many forms, such as oft-used performative rage, much like US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s outburst in a Senate Committee hearing following serious accusations of sexual assault. Regarded as “passionate,” his mock righteousness was a theatrical display of self-defence, but fulfilled a painful double standard. 

This distorted reality can lead to increasingly vile and horrifying acts of violence by ‘involuntary celibates.’ Self proclaimed ‘incels’ are heterosexual men who define themselves as unable to find a romantic or sexual partner despite desiring one. The most recent case in 2018, was that of a van driver (suspected to be Alek Minassian), who killed 10 people and injured 14 others in a vehicle-ramming attack in Ontario, Canada. The act of violence was carried out with a misogynist ideology – the belief that this level of aggression was an appropriate response for a man ‘not having his desires met.’

Sex and the School

Faculty and students alike in educational institutions need to be schooled in the subject of sexual harassment.

In October 2016, Marium Saad, a former student at the Karachi-based school, Cedar College, reported a case of sexual misconduct having occurred on school premises to the Cedar administration. The perpetrator, said Marium, inappropriately groped her in front of another friend when they were sitting together in the school’s rooftop canteen. Shaken, Marium said, she wondered if she had invited the behaviour. She believed that by confronting the offender, she could ensure he never did it again. “When she did confront him, he responded aggressively, stating that now he knew how uncomfortable it made her feel, he’d be doing it again,” said Elsa Sajjad, Marium’s batchmate and friend. “Marium told her parents, and they reported it to the school. The friend that was sitting with her when the incident occurred served as a witness, and wrote an email detailing the incident. Cedar said they would conduct an investigation.”

Nonetheless, the offender proceeded to make the remaining school year a difficult time by creating a hostile environment for Marium on campus. “He belongs to a well-off family and had friends who supported rather than discouraged him,” said Areeba Fatima, a friend of Marium’s, and her junior at Cedar. “Elsa and I, along with her other friends, became really frustrated at the lack of action taken against her harasser, and so we took it upon ourselves to warn others against him.”

Over the span of the year Areeba and Elsa discovered there were numerous unreported and undealt with cases of sexual harassment at other schools too. They realised that most educational institutions did not have proper policies in place which either explicitly protected survivors of sexual misconduct, or punished the perpetrators. “I knew I would be graduating soon, but I was worried for Areeba and the batch below us,” said Elsa. “I knew we had to do something.”

In 2017, Areeba posted a status on Facebook calling out all educational institutions to take on their due responsibility in protecting students. She and Elsa went on to contact lawyers and activists to create a team, and then approached the Cedar administration with the draft of a sexual harassment policy. The school authorities responded by maintaining they were working on exactly such a policy at the time.

The administration then proceeded to merge the two teams, leading to lawyers Nighat Dad, Summaiya Zaidi, Maliha Zia, Hiba Thobani and Bolo Bhi founder Farieha Aziz working together on a Cedar-specific document. Principal Aysha Sheikh discussed the need to widen the scope of the document, and to cover alongside sexual harassment, the prohibition of not only sexual misconduct, but also cyber-bullying, bullying and any intimidatory behaviour of any kind. Additionally, she asked that it should seek to ensure the implementation of a thorough investigation and proper penalising of guilty parties. The team worked on the policy for the better part of a year, and it was launched in November 2018.

“We needed the school to create a holistic policy, so students would have the security of knowing that it would take proactive measures to limit mistreatment, and effectively deal with any cases that transpired,” said Areeba. The failure of academic institutions to address sexual misconduct places a collective burden on the victims and bystanders. It places students and faculty in compromising situations where they are forced to interact with perpetrators. Most A-Level students are minors, for whom taking a legal route, or involving the law enforcers could irrevocably affect their emotional well-being — and their reputations in what is still a relatively conservative society.

Farieha Aziz and Hiba Thobani also created a policy in an online open source document which was emailed to other schools, the first comprehensive sexual harassment policy created specifically for educational institutions in Karachi. When speaking to Newsline, Farieha Aziz discussed the lack of preemptive structures to limit the instances of sexual harassment, as a result of the generational divide, minimal open dialogue and limited public knowledge regarding the rights of an individual.

The 2010 Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act covers instances where there are either faculty members, or a faculty member and a student involved. However, as students are not employees of an educational institutions, they are not covered by this policy. Additionally, all working institutions are to have an inquiry committee established under Section 3 of the 2010 Act, something which most schools do not presently have.

“Can you imagine that for the school, it is an ‘uncomfortable’ conversation to have, to begin with; making a committee and a policy would just take ‘too much time’ to ensure what should be the basic procedure at every institution,” said Areeba with indignance. “It’s no wonder students in schools who had been victimised weren’t coming forward.”

In May 2018, while Cedar’s policy was still a document in-the-making, Marium Saad sought to take back her story. “Marium told me she, and another girl who he harassed, had written a post on what happened, and wanted me to like the comment to support her,” said Areeba. “It was the first time anyone in our peer group had done anything like it. She publicly called out someone who had harassed her, and girls from Cedar and from other schools supported Marium. The evidence mounting against him was exponential.”

Marium spoke to Newsline in a telephonic interview, detailing her motivation to go public: “What other boys and girls have been through is so much worse, and they don’t get any justice. I wanted people to know what happened, and why there needs to be transparency regarding policies, so students know where their schools stand. It was emotionally labouring, but it inspired other people to come out with their own stories.”

A few days later, virtually overnight, the everyday Pakistani teen’s Facebook newsfeed underwent content restructuring. The usual videos of kittens and pictures of memes were relegated to the sidelines by a flood of posts by a Facebook page which detailed horrifying instances of sexual violence carried out against current students, alumni and teachers at educational institutions. The posts often named the alleged abusers, and the educational institutions they had occurred in, while keeping the identity of the victims anonymous. The schools and colleges named, spanned across Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore. The posts plugged the hashtag ‘#Time’sUp.’

Not a day that week passed that the page did not garner over 2,000 likes. Additionally, it was picked up and reported on by local online news outlets. It seemed Marium’s coming forward had stirred the Me Too movement, which finally made its way to Pakistan. The page — also dubbed Time’s Up — received support from social media users across the country, gathering more attention as the week went by — until it reached the educational institutions named in the posts. The page was taken down by the end of the week.

It is suspected the administrators behind the page took it down as a result of defamation cases that were filed with the FIA by the alleged abusers in the posts. “Soon, it was almost like it hadn’t even existed. However, the page started a much needed discourse among the younger generation on sexual harassment,” said Elsa. “It awakened educational institutions to the fact that if they do not move forward, these cases will continue to happen, but people will not stay silent about it.”

Farieha Aziz, with other activists, holds awareness-raising seminars and workshops at different educational bastions to promote healthy conversations on boundaries and the civil rights of individuals. She has noted in her line of work that few people trust the legal process — which is not always on the side of the abused — or do not have financial or emotional support to pursue legal recourse. And there are few options for those looking for safe avenues to process their traumas and incidents. And so, Farieha is working to create spaces where people can come forward with their own Me Too stories without fear of being reprimanded, intimidated or blamed.

Farieha notes that while the Me Too movement has been marked as an upper middle-class movement, it has been instrumental in breaking the silence. “We need to police our conversations, and focus on accountability among ourselves,” she says. “Sometimes it is not about taking a step to punish or
prosecute, it’s about the ability to say something and be

Mahnoor Farooqui

In countries like Pakistan, particularly, it is sometimes skewed gender disparity where women are usually the victims – coupled with the virtual blanket woven with the thread of religion, socio-cultural mores, and the increasing marginalisation of those who have no voice – that continues to enshroud all conversation regarding sexual propriety. The silence that surrounds sexual harassment in public and private spaces across the board of entertainment, academia and healthcare makes it next to impossible for victims to come forward. Academia’s behaviour towards Professor Sahar Ansari – accused and found guilty of sexually harassing a colleague and various other students – is testament to the lack of accountability for men’s behaviour even when their crimes become public information. Ansari, a regular at literary events in the city, continues to make public appearances – most recently at the Urdu Conference held at the Arts Council in Karachi – as he did before the proof of his serial sexual misconduct came to light. 

Public health workers are no less exploited than those in academia, or the fashion and entertainment industries. Women are employed by UNICEF, government agencies and numerous other organisations for the purposes of fieldwork, where they perform a myriad duties – from administering polio vaccinations and spreading awareness regarding the disease to dispensing information about basic healthcare and overall sanitation – and continue to be exploited routinely. With no safeguards, being catcalled and sexually and physically intimidated by their own supervisors daily has become an occupational hazard, par for the course.  

A Union Council (UC) level officer from Orangi Town, who wishes to remain anonymous, shares that despite well-known human resource consultancies providing recruitment services for organisations like UNICEF, women have no one whom they can turn to, or disclose the sexual harassment they are subjected to at work, as often it is their superiors who are complicit in their abuse. The few that have ventured to file official complaints after years of sexual intimidation, mostly do so to their own loss: they are summarily dismissed from work. Often, this is another case of the ‘old boys network’ in action. “Even when complaints are filed, no action is taken,” says the UC level officer. “There is no reparation for the victims, and the people who made these women’s lives miserable, continue to do so with the new workers who join.” Against this backdrop it is almost a given: women who choose to work in public healthcare should accept harassment as part of their job description. 

And no one, nowhere, it seems is safe. 

China Too

The MeToo movement has a foothold in hitherto closed spaces

In the year since the Me Too movement first began in Hollywood, it has gone global, transcending culture, society and borders. China, notorious for heavy Internet censorship, too saw the floodgates open as more and more allegations of sexual assault by women around the country, started to surface. Some of China’s most notable names have since been accused of sexual assault and a large-scale movement to make the conversation part of public discourse has begun on the Internet. Where the state has tried every possible way to contain the stories being shared under the ‘Me Too’ hashtag, Chinese women have come up with innovative ways to keep the conversation going. When local censorship authorities caught on to the ‘Me Too’ hashtag, they began taking posts down. Chinese netizens began to use less recognisable hashtags, including ‘Woyeshi’ – the Chinese translation of Me Too, and ‘Mitu’ – a homophone of Me Too – which translates to rice bunny – to share stories of sexual harassment. Throwing advanced technology into the mix, the Chinese are also using blockchain to keep a record of stories on the Internet; publishing them under the term ‘every snowflake,’ after censorship authorities restricted the use of the hashtags, ‘Woyeshi,’ ‘Me Too’ and ‘Mitu.’ Leaving no stone unturned, Chinese netizens have also resorted to posting inverted images, which helps them bypass censorship filtering systems and allows for stories of sexual assault to remain on the Internet to keep the conversation going.

– Zoha Liaquat


Abeera* a recent graduate at a private medical school in Karachi, narrates the instances of repeated harassment she faced at the hands of a professor. A day before the finals exams, the young woman and her friend were summoned by the professor to his cubicle. “When we went in, he asked me to sit on a chair and when I did, he proceeded to stand behind me, supposedly to demonstrate how we were required to examine patients during the test … I didn’t think much of this at the time because teachers often ask students to sit in the patient’s chair to better explain how to conduct physical exams. But it was after I sat on the chair, that his behaviour made me extremely uncomfortable,” says the 23-year-old. 

She continues, “He began to press my shoulders in a clearly sexual way, caressing my neck as he shifted my face ostensibly to get a better visual angle of my teeth under the guise of conducting a dental exam. I froze, but the caressing continued for a minute or two as he continued to explain even as he did this, what we were required to do for the exam. By this time my friend realised what he was doing, so she grabbed my arm and jerked me out of my seat, telling the professor that we had understood the content of the lesson and would use the course material to study. He probably would have been even more inappropriate had my friend not removed me from that situation, because all that time I was in absolute shock and felt too numb and powerless to say or do anything.” 

Naveen,* another student of medicine at a private university located in Korangi, speaks of her professor’s notoriously predatory body language and actions, which seem to have become accepted as routine behaviour. “Every time we sit around class in a circle, he ensures that a girl sits next to him. If you show any hesitation he says things like, ‘Mujh mai kaante lage hain kya? (Does it look like I have thorns?)’ It is almost impossible for any of us to turn down his advances without making a big fuss about it,” she says. 

Holy Sinners

Under the umbrella of religion, clerics indulge in the most unholy of practices: the abuse of children who are their wards.

Newsline reporter Ali Arqam recounts the testimonial of a student residing in a local madrassa in Baldia town, who has been subjected to a vicious cycle of sexual abuse since he joined, and his account of the environment of sexual exploitation in the madrassa.

“A student, who chose to remain anonymous, told me of the numerous instances of sexual exploitation he has been subjected to. Now, he says, he is so used to it, that he does not react to any abuse he faces at the hands of older students in the madrassa, or in his locality. His father, he discloses, is aware of the goings-on, but takes no action. His only response: ‘Do as you like at your madrassa, but not where we live.’

“Younger children, usually those from lower income families with many siblings, are enrolled in madrassas to learn (hifz) the Quran. The system of rote learning at madrassas includes physical violence by teachers as reinforcement, making corporal punishment the norm. Often older children who have studied at the same madrassas, are put in charge of the younger kids. Many times these are the lesser educated of the students – the hifz/nazra teachers, who have memorised the Quran by routinely being brutally punished, and suffering sexual abuse alongside. Now they continue the cycle of abuse with their charges, for it is all they know.

“These underpaid teachers are often in charge of over 80 students each. They have little to no resources or motivation to exert any more effort than the most basic. Often they bifurcate the class they are dealing with by placing older students in charge of assorted groups of young students. It is the responsibility of these older students to note the mistakes their charges make in their hifz, and report them to the teacher. To avoid the wrath of their teachers, these young students have to appease their student-teachers, who often subject them to brutal punishments. And this appeasement often translates into sexual abuse.

“There are multiple levels of exploitation and harassment in madrassas. While all those involved at these seminaries claim to revere the sanctity of the Quran and its scriptures, abuse is so rampant in madrassa settings that often during the recitation of the Holy Book, younger children will be seen being made to fondle their student-teachers’ genitals. Paedophilia aside, because of their aberrant and often deviant and harsh sexual predelictions, certain teachers and qaris’ in these institutions become virtual ‘bogeymen’ of whom the younger children are terrified, and they are threatened by the elder students that they will besent to the religious clergies these abusers run, if they do not give in to their demands.

“Compounding the situation, students are usually too traumatised to say anything, especially to their fathers, with whom they do not have open relationships. Sometimes they turn to their mothers, but they too are as much part of the patriarchal makeup which exists and defines prevailing mores, and in fear of societal shame, suppress their children’s claims. In fact, parents often trivialise the abuse, particularly if it has been limited to inappropriate touching and being made to feel uncomfortable. It is seen as ‘not enough’ grounds for them to demand any decisive action from the authorities, in this case the teachers. Victim-blaming, where the child is accused of having invited sexual advances, is a deeply ingrained part of this system, which also contributes to the silence surrounding abuse.

“The fear of their children losing their place in the madrassas which provide them food, and in many instances the roof over their heads, is also why many parents do not come forward and take action. Many children are permanent residents of the madrassas. In this situation, they rarely have access to allies in whom they can confide, and so are particularly vulnerable to abuse.

“Madrassas that claim land and have communities built around them, hold an unsubstantiated amount of power, and are a large part of the problem regarding the sexual abuse of minors, specifically, young males. Much like the Catholic Church — where allegations of suppressing investigations into sexual abuse date back as far as the 1950s —madrassas have the insurmountable backing of the powers-that-be, who have all used religion as one of the most effective power-wielding tools, particularly on illiterate, poor segments of the public. Hence the cloak of silence that leaves the field open for the sexual predators in the clergy to continue preying on generations of children.”

– Compiled by Zoha Liaquat and Mahnoor Farooqui

Ilma Zuberi, a social sciences student who recently completed her thesis project on ‘Harassment, Catcalling and Coping: Women in Public Spaces of Karachi,’ comments on the deep-rooted normalisation of sexual harassment: “It doesn’t matter where a woman is, in a public or private space, the harassment is rampant everywhere.” Ilma’s extensive research draws a connection between normalisation and control –  how patriarchal norms, benevolent sexism and male entitlement work in tandem to create an unsafe environment for women. “If a space is made unsafe for women, that increases their dependency on men; that’s why we are always told to take a man along when stepping out of the house,” she says.

Zuberi narrates two separate instances of sexual harassment she faced in the public space. “I was an A level student at the time. I had just paid a rickshaw wallah, disembarked and began to walk away, but felt him watching. I looked around, only to see him masturbating. I was holding the money – the change he had returned – that he had just touched with his hands… I ran and the minute I got home, went to take a shower, still in my uniform because I felt dirty.” In another instance, Zuberi discloses, she was faced with a similar situation, but reacted differently. “I was in university and finally able to realise my rights, my power, my strength. When I asked the rickshaw wallah who had driven me home how much the fare was, he hiked his shirt up and asked me to stimulate his genitalia as payment. When I recoiled, he grabbed my hand, but I didn’t run away. I hit him on his head with my large bag until he let go. Since then, I’ve hurled abuses at harassers, thrown rocks, publicly shamed, yelled and sworn. I have stood in front of other women to protect them and refused to change my behaviour despite fear-laden advice,” says the fiery young woman who actively speaks up against sexual harassment.

But far too many women find themselves unable to fight back, often too scared to speak up. Victim-blaming plays a significant part in silencing people from sharing their stories, as was particularly evident through the public reaction to Meesha Shafi’s allegations. Social media users were quick to assassinate Shafi’s character, digging up suggestive pictures from the past to negate her claims. Nighat Dad, Shafi’s lawyer and founder of the Digital Rights Foundation, reflects on how victim-blaming derails the conversation and shifts the focus from the perpetrator to the victim. “So much of the conversation around Meesha’s case has been about how her claims are false. The more moderate view is that she may be mistaken, and the more extreme that she is lying to further her career. And in this ongoing conversation, we have conveniently chosen to forget that it wasn’t just Meesha, but multiple other women who came forward after her with the same claims as her. If it’s proof people want when it’s already there, then it is more a matter of who we as a society trust and value more, and whose side we choose to be on.”

An emotional outburst by US Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, during a Senate Committee hearing following allegations of sexual misconduct.

Apart from the victim-blaming, Shafi was also subjected to criticism for choosing social media to launch her complaint instead of taking the legal route. But that begs the question, is the Pakistani legal system nuanced enough to rule on sexual harassment cases? Even in the more gender-egalitarian West, as has been witnessed innumerable times until the very recent past, women who were victims of sexual crimes as major as rape were reluctant to come forth with their stories. They knew the judgement often ended up insinuating that they had asked for it. So while forums to address such crimes do exist, most women are not aware of them or do not have the means to pursue their cases. When speaking on a panel at the Women’s Peace Table, lawyer Sana Farrukh detailed the long-drawn process of filing a complaint under The Protection Against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2010. “First, the victim must meet and register her complaint with the ombudsperson to proceed against the alleged harasser, and only then a show-cause notice is issued against the alleged accused,” said the young lawyer. But even as there are systems in place, with only one ombudsperson’s office in each province, accessibility to those systems continues to be an issue for a large number of women. Detailing the loopholes in the law, attorney Abira Ashfaq added, “The majority of women in Pakistan work either in the agriculture sector, as home-based workers, or are employed in informal work. In their particular working conditions, there is no room to establish inquiry committees.” 

In addition to the loopholes in the law, panelist Farieha Aziz spoke about the need for societal change and the requirements necessary to create a safety net for victims. “There is a need to facilitate such places where victims of abuse can be protected and the state must take the lead,” said the activist and founder of Bolo Bhi. “Not everyone wishes to come forward because the legal route can be emotionally and financially draining with little payoff,” said Farieha. “In this situation, it’s not often that one can hold people accountable in cases of blackmail and intimidation.”  

Although the Me Too movement has triggered a debate about how widespread sexual harassment is, it needs to be tailored to the sensibilities of different cultures to result in systemic legal change. And the consequences, as events demonstrate, are not always in the victim’s favour even when they have had the courage to speak up. Take the case of American stand-up comedian Louis C.K. who returned to the stage just a little over a year after having publicly admitted he sexually harassed a number of colleagues by masturbating in front of them. Or Khalid Bajwa’s reinstatement as CEO of the music-streaming platform Patari, two months after multiple allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced against him. Clearly, it is impossible to punish all the people in positions of power who have at some point, abused someone. And while celebrities going public with their Me Too stories gives more people the courage to come forward, it also makes them susceptible to harassment and intimidation online. “While social media has been such a great tool in bringing the sexual harassment conversation to light, it is also where people continue to be harassed. We need to focus on creating alternate physical spaces and forums where survivors of sexual harassment can share their stories without fear of backlash,” says Nighat Dad. 

Of equal importance is the need for a local vernacular to help victims describe the occurrences of sexual intimidation, coercion, assault, marital rape, domestic abuse and many other acts of sexual misconduct. Pakistanis as a majority are not aware of their rights as citizens of the state, and so, should have access to knowledge of how they can protect themselves. Currently statistics for domestic, sexual and workplace harassment are few and far between, and research on the subject is not well-funded. NGOs, such as Aurat Foundation and War Against Rape, publish research papers available for public knowledge and use, but these are neither widely marketed, nor easily understood by a large segment of the population that does not have access to formal education. 

Furthermore, perpetrators of sexual assault must be held accountable. In addition to public condemnation, real legal consequences like seeing justice being done – i.e. for the accused if proven guilty – can have a significant effect on preventing sexual crimes. 

But, as recent events indicate, change is still a long time coming.